by Caleb Goellner

Exaggerating the Truth Insights on Digital Portrait Painting

For most kids, getting caught sketching a wickedly good caricature of the history teacher during class is the fast lane to a week of detention. For artist Jason Seiler, it was the path to a successful career. Sure, Seiler was marched straight to the high school principal’s office, but instead of a punishment, the budding artist landed his first commission.

“The principal made it really clear she thought that doing drawings on my homework was a bad idea,” Seiler said. “But she said I was talented, and a couple of days later she asked me to do drawings of a bunch of teachers for a retirement party.”

The twenty bucks a pop the principal paid for those early portraits turns out to have been an incredibly good deal. The boy who, at age two, was copying ducks from his wildlife artist father, Larry Seiler’s, notebooks, never stopped drawing. Last year, he made the cover of Time with his soulful portrait of Pope Francis, the news mag’s Person of the Year. With clients like Rolling Stone, the New York Times, the New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice, Disney, Kraft, MAD Magazine and Universal Pictures, it’s almost easier to talk about who isn’t on Seiler’s resume than who is.

Now, his new book, “The Complete Artist”, is set to hit in both print and interactive eBook form this summer, and Seiler gets to focus on his favorite thing – the artistic process.

“The book is a behind-the-scenes reality check of what it’s like to be an illustrator who’s working fulltime,” Seiler said. “But it’s written like a novel, with stuff about my childhood, what it was like when I was growing up, and the struggles I faced as I built my career.”

A Non-Techie Tackles Tablets

Among the challenges for Seiler, a classically-trained painter who studied at The Academy of American Art, was making the transition from traditional painting to digital drawing. First of all, there’s the whole tech thing.

“I’m not a computer guy,” Seiler says in a mastery of understatement. “I don’t even know what kind of computer I have – it’s a Mac, that’s all I know.”

When stuff crashes, Seiler’s at a loss. He has to call a pal to come over and straighten things out. And the version of Adobe he’s using? It’s at least three, maybe four years old. But get him talking about the art itself, about the intuitive leap from mind’s eye to finished page, and you’re in for a master class.

“Sometimes I start with a tiny doodle of what I’m thinking compositionally, just playing with the shapes and relationships and so on,” Seiler said. “Other times I’ll start blocking the colors right away, which gives the client get a good idea of what I’m thinking.”

Supporting an Art Career Digitally

When he was first starting out, Seiler did all of his contract work in acrylics, a laborious and time consuming process when tight publishing deadlines are involved. 

“I couldn’t do my best work,” he said. “You can spend weeks on something personal but with deadlines, you just can’t. I kept thinking, ‘this is so frustrating.’ “

Out of desperation, Seiler went to Best Buy and dropped one hundred dollars on a tablet.

“It was a teeny thing, generic,” he said. “I didn’t know how to work it but I tried and just messed around.”

A muscle mag had just commissioned a portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Seiler decided to give the new tablet a shot. Though the interface felt weird – drawing on the tablet but watching the results on the computer screen – the results were astonishingly good.

“It turned out really cool and the editors liked it and I did it all so fast,” Seiler said. “I decided that for every commercial job, I was going to do it digitally.”

Seiler’s work quickly got noticed and the assignments rolled in, including from Bobby Chiu at Schoolism who brought him on to work with director Tim Burton. Burton was prepping “Alice in Wonderland” and Seiler helped create the Red Queen, the Tweedles, and the Bandersnatch. With each new commission, Seiler found himself defining and refining his artistic approach.

First, there’s the vast difference between a caricaturist, and the deep character work at which Seiler excels. Any decent artist can enlarge or embellish a person’s physical features to arrive at a parody. What sets Seiler apart is the depth and subtlety of his portraits, which takes intense study.

“I don’t call myself a caricaturist, I call myself an impressionist,” Seiler said. “I use exaggeration as a tool, sometimes a lot and sometimes in ways you barely notice it.” 

Then, there are the ways Seiler uses his digital tools. After literally wearing grooves into the face of his el cheapo tablet, Seiler upgraded to the Intuos 3. Now his tablets of choice are the 21-inch Cintiq, and the portable Cintiq Companion.

“The Cintiq is amazing – it’s pressure-sensitive and you can draw right on the screen,” Seiler said. “It feels totally natural, very similar to a sketch book or paper.”

As he does when painting with oils, Seiler works in layers on the Cintiq, moving from light to dark, focusing on values and color harmony. Because digital paintings can so easily lose the feel of the hand, Seiler developed his digital technique to leave brush strokes, reveal under-layers, which lets the viewer feel a painting’s structure as well as see it.

For a painting of Rick Ross for Rolling Stone, Seiler had a single day to nail the rapper’s essence. First came an initial sketch for the magazine to approve. After a quick block-in to establish the values and colors, he tackled the details.

Seiler spent a few hours getting Ross’ nose just right, then took a few more hours to work on the eyes.

“Now I go to work on the piece as a whole – the hands, the ears, start trying to match everything, match the eyes and the nose and the mouth,” Seiler said. “And the whole time, the clock is counting down.”

Thirty minutes from deadline, Seiler added tiny details with big impact – drips and shadows, little stutters in the color.

“I add those final things and hit send,” Seiler said.  “Two days later, it’s in the magazine.”

And while the finished product is a painting, it’s also a version of the truth. 

“When I work I’m exaggerating the truth, I’m pushing it and taking it somewhere else,” Seiler said. “As an artist, that lets you get to the essence of your subject and of your art. That’s what lets your voice and your style come through.”